draining the pool

New York City’s Absent Teacher Reserve is steadily decreasing, city says

Members of the Absent Teacher Reserve pool who did extensive job searches spoke at a press conference with then teachers union President Randi Weingarten at the start of the school year in 2009. (GothamSchools)

The pool of teachers collecting salaries and benefits without holding full-time positions shrunk by roughly 150 compared to this time last year, according to numbers released Thursday by the Department of Education.

The number stands at 1,304 this October — a decline driven by some teachers finding new jobs and others leaving the school system, city officials said. The size of the pool represents only a snapshot in time and fluctuates throughout the school year, but the Department of Education argues that, in the aggregate, the pool has been steadily decreasing.

“We must have a strong teacher in every classroom to provide an equitable and excellent education for all students,” said schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña. “We’re laser focused on ensuring this while reducing the ATR pool and costs for the city’s taxpayers.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio and the city’s teachers union have vowed to reduce the number of teachers in the Absent Teacher Reserve, both by offering buyouts and by helping qualified teachers find jobs. The teachers union contract included provisions to help ATR teachers interview at schools and a buyout that 115 teachers and other staffers took.

A UFT spokesperson said Thursday that the decline in ATR pool represents a “joint effort” between the union and the Department of Education.

City officials said they could not pinpoint exactly how many teachers received new job placements versus how many left the system entirely. When they city last released ATR data in February, officials reported they had successfully placed 500 teachers in full-time positions in both the fall of 2014 and 2015.

Not everyone is thrilled by that statistic. Reducing the ATR pool by putting more teachers in classrooms does a disservice to schools and students, said StudentsFirstNY, an advocacy group that backed Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s education policies. (The ATR grew under Bloomberg, costing the city about $105 million.)

“The de Blasio administration should not be cheered for shrinking the pool by placing ineffective teachers back in classrooms, which does a profound disservice to thousands of students,” said Jenny Sedlis, executive director of StudentsFirstNY.

Eric Nadelstern, a former deputy chancellor of New York City schools under Bloomberg who is now a professor at Teachers College, said another reason for the shrinking pool is far fewer schools are closing under de Blasio than under Bloomberg.

Teachers are typically placed in the ATR pool for budgetary reasons, Nadelstern said, or because they were performing poorly. Instead of keeping them within the school system, he said he would do the same as most other “sensible” industries and offer the teachers more buyouts.

“The thought of that in any other field of endeavor would be absurd,” Nadelstern said, “and yet we regularly treat teachers as if they are fungible and interchangeable — and they’re not.”

Teaching teachers

Some New York charter schools could soon be allowed to certify their own teachers. What could that look like?

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Erica Murphy, school director of Brownsville Ascend Lower Charter School in New York, oversees students in a fourth-grade English class.

One charter school teacher training program gives first-year teachers a part-time workload and allows them to learn alongside mentor teachers.

Another has summer workshops that include home visits with students’ families.

A third network often starts the year with a week of workshops at a Westchester hotel, has a staff member devoted to professional development, and brings in consultants for math, writing and reading instruction.

These are a handful of training programs at charters that may soon substitute for the formal state certification process, which requires obtaining a master’s degree and passing certification exams. Under regulations proposed by SUNY last week, some charter schools would largely be able to design their own alternative certification programs that would be valid at other SUNY-authorized schools. And charter leaders say those programs will be heavy on practical experience and embedded within the schools’ existing teacher improvement efforts.

The proposed change is intended to relieve hiring pressure on charters, which are currently required to have no more than 15 uncertified teachers — and to free teachers from burdensome certification requirements.

Teachers unions and top state officials were quick to criticize the idea, arguing that putting less trained teachers in classrooms hurts students. To many charter school leaders, though, the training they already offer inside their schools is more relevant than what education schools provide.

“Come to me with a degree in astronomy,” said Jeff Litt, superintendent of Icahn Charter Schools. “If you spend a year with me, I’m going to turn you into a successful teacher.”

The proposed change would require SUNY-authorized schools to apply for permission to run their own certification programs. Those programs must include at least 30 hours of instruction, 100 hours of teaching experience under the supervision of an experienced teacher and the completion of certain State Education Department workshops — all of which is far less than a typical prospective teacher would need to complete before becoming certified through the regular process.

Charter leaders like Litt say there is little evidence to support the idea that certified teachers are better at improving student performance than uncertified teachers. In fact, some studies do show certified teachers can be more effective than uncertified teachers, but the differences are relatively modest.

Even if the state’s current certification is no silver bullet, said Jonah Rockoff, an education researcher at Columbia University, the lingering question is: Can charter schools come up with something better?

“Great teachers have many complex skills, so the key is how charters will train these new hires,” Rockoff said in an email. “A master’s degree is no guarantee, but that doesn’t mean everybody can teach.”

A lot of schools say they already have come up with something better — and the state’s certification process is either an unnecessary nuisance or, worse, an impediment to progress.

At Democracy Prep Public Schools new teachers are required to attend four weeks of training during the summer, said CEO Katie Duffy. Once teachers start working, there is an instructional coach on staff to give feedback to teachers, which might involve videotaping and reviewing lessons with new teachers, she said. One day each week, students are dismissed early and the staff participates in professional development workshops.

In the midst of that process — which Duffy considers the real driver of success — new teachers currently have to find time to take graduate-school courses.

“First of all, you don’t have the time to go back to school and you sure don’t have the money,” Duffy said. (Some networks, including Democracy Prep, do pay for continuing education.)

Steven Wilson, founder and executive director of Ascend Charter Schools, feels the same way. At Ascend, Wilson said, they try not to give any first-year teachers the full responsibility of leading a classroom. Instead, they allow new teachers to learn the ropes under a mentor and help the new teacher gradually increase their workload over the course of the school year.

And some, including Wilson, believe the existing certification process can be harmful. Education schools, he said, are “awash with deeply harmful jargon and practices.” He said Ascend has to unteach some of the practices teachers learn in education school and the requirement to go back to school discourages some prospective teachers from entering the practice.

“The requirement to do this is a turnoff to the very people the profession needs most,” Wilson said. “Are you going to take a year of your life and go to a third-rate education school? No, you’re going to go to a profession where you don’t have to do that.”

One of the arguments in favor of alternative certification is that it makes charter schools more welcoming to professionals who have a background in something else — like history or engineering, for instance — but now want to teach.

“We’re always looking to attract those individuals into our network,” said Janelle Bradshaw, superintendent at Public Prep, noting that under the current rules these professionals often do not have the requisite credits. “Then, what we do is provide you with the tools and the resources to become a strong and effective teacher.”

But Dirck Roosevelt, a visiting associate professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College, says professional success doesn’t always translate into the ability to lead a classroom. “To know mathematics sufficiently to design a bridge or to supervise the construction of a bridge is not remotely the same thing as to know it in such a way that you will know what your sophomore algebra student is going to find difficult,” he said.

If these regulations pass, charters’ training will be subject to oversight, Joseph Belluck, charter school committee chair on the SUNY board, said last week.

Reached Wednesday, SUNY did not provide details about what the oversight might entail but hinted that it could be linked to student performance.

“Should any SUNY charter have the opportunity to establish a SUNY charter school teacher certification program, the strength of such a program will directly link to how well students perform,” said Susie Miller Carello, executive director of the SUNY Charter Schools Institute.

Certified or not, charter networks say, they want prospective teachers to thrive in the classroom — and already work to ensure that.

“We, as a public school, have the responsibility to put great teachers in front of kids, regardless of certification status,” said Ian Rowe, CEO of Public Prep. “We bear that responsibility even if 100 percent of our teachers were certified. From that perspective, I don’t see a difference.”

Clarification: This story has been updated to explain that Democracy Prep pays for the cost of professional development and certification. 

mend it or end it?

Why a long-time critic of teacher professional development is arguing against Trump’s push to cut federal funds for it

Teacher at a professional development session.

Someone looking to make a case for cutting funding for professional development would do well to cite the work of TNTP. The organization’s 2015 report titled “The Mirage” argued that districts were spending billions to help teachers improve — with little return on investment.

So it’s somewhat surprising that Dan Weisberg, the president of TNTP — an education reform-oriented organization previously called The New Teacher Project — was on Capitol Hill this week pushing back against the Trump administration’s proposed cuts to Title II funding, a large share of which goes to teacher professional development.

“We at TNTP are professional development skeptics, but I would say that we are seeing and doing work across the country [indicating] that the trend is positive in terms of work being more disciplined,” Weisberg told Chalkbeat.

Weisberg said the cuts “would be really unfortunate and have bad impacts on educators and kids.”

In one key way, Weisberg’s position is not surprising: his organization contracts with districts to provide services and is sometimes paid through Title II funds. (Weisberg notes that this accounts for a very small fraction of TNTP’s budget.)

That may mean his objections fall on deaf ears within the Trump administration, which has indicated skepticism of an education establishment it sees as benefitting from the current system. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has also argued that school spending is unlikely to benefit students.

Still, TNTP’s position indicates the breadth of opposition to the budget slashes, which have faced fierce skepticism from a number of education groups and from lawmakers. The cuts are seen as unlikely to be enacted in full.

The Trump budget proposal eliminates a $2.4 billion program known as Title II, Part A or Supporting Effective Instruction, which the administration has described as duplicative and ineffective. In 2014-15, nearly half of that money went to professional development.

Weisberg — along with a number of education reform groups and the superintendents of the Tulsa and Baltimore school systems — made the case to Congressional staff that it was important to “mend not end” investment in teacher training.

“Our argument to folks on the Hill was that Congress actually made some positive changes that brought more discipline to the spending of these federal funds,” he said. “Zeroing it out now or substantially cutting it is really pulling the rug out from some good policy work Congress has done.”

Weisberg also said he has had informal, “off-the-record” conversations with the Department of Education staff suggesting that they are also not enthusiastic about the cuts.

“They were given some very tough decisions to make in the budget process,” he said. “Let me put it this way: I don’t think you’re going to hear vociferous objections from the Department of Education if Congress decides to fund those programs.”

TNTP and others have long argued that there isn’t much strong evidence of the effectiveness of professional training for teachers, though a number of recent analyses offer more clues as to what makes professional support for teachers work.

One recent overview of research suggests that individualized coaching helps teachers improve and increases student test scores. Two new studies on mentoring of new teachers suggest that it can increase student test scores and teacher retention.